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Is It College or The NFL?

   by Scott Spreitzer - 09/08/2008

I've been watching college football games very closely so far this season. I wanted to see how the rules changes affecting the clock would influence play. There's been some debate about that so far. I think most people are missing the key point.

In terms of how you handicap games, college football is slowly turning into the NFL.

This struck me most clearly when I was watching a team sit on a fourth quarter lead. The quarterback watched the play clock roll down so he could make sure he got the snap off with just one or two seconds left. He was actually enjoying this! You could see he felt like a pro. His team was going to win the game, and he was Peyton Manning or Brett Favre standing at the center of attention, being in control of the universe.

College players don't get to celebrate their individual accomplishments the way pro's do. They don't get paid (officially) the way pro's do. But now, at least in this one particular element, they get to feel like pro's.

And, the fact that it's easier for teams with a lead to run out the clock means you have to start handicapping college football games the way you handicap the pro's. Several years back, as the NFL adjusted to a style that literally RACES through games because the players want to avoid injuries, handicappers had to do some tweaking. They were basically handicapping "three quarter" games instead of full games. The number of plays went down. The number of scoring plays went down because teams literally became more focused on grinding out the clock than getting into the end zone.

*True blowouts became more rare, occurring mostly when the leading team picked up a lot of cheap points from turnovers. New England of 2007 has been the only team in recent memory that would just pile on points offensively for the fun of it. Most everyone else tried to get ahead by more than one possession, then tried to limit the number of possessions.

*Totals used to center in the mid 40's, with projected shootouts seeing lines around 52. It was common to see many run-and-shoot style teams fly Over those high totals too. Now, even no-huddle offenses try to grind out the clock. They stay out of their huddles to keep the defense from substituting, not because they're trying to jam in a lot more plays. Totals are centering in the low 40's. Some weeks it feels like you need a few miracles just to get the scoring that high.

*Lesser teams stopped wearing down so much through the course of the season. If you're playing what amounts to three-fourths of a game every week instead of a full game, you're fresher deeper into the season. This helped competitive balance in what was already a competitive league. And, it encouraged the same style to continue. An all-out war hurts even if you win. Take your shots on winning a quicker game so you have something left for the remaining games.

I think all of those issues we saw in the NFL will come into play this season for COLLEGE handicappers. We saw that to a significant degree two years ago when rules officials inadvertently shortened college games to an extreme degree. They rescinded those rules last year, and the game reverted back to its prior form. This year, they've tried to find a happy medium. I think they're about to realize that they took too many plays out of the game once again. Or, they took too many IMPORTANT plays out of the game because teams with a lead are now focused on gaining short chunks and moving the chains.

For handicappers, this means:

*Don't bet college football Overs unless you're sure there's going to be a shootout. The scale is much lower than you're used to seeing. Professional wagerers have been loading up on Unders in the first two weeks of the season. Wait until the dust settles before you try betting many Overs.

*Look even harder to find value underdogs. Games are going to be shorter than they were last year, which makes it harder for the superior team to fully express its edge. Some favorites will still cover. Many of those though will be from cheap points off turnovers and special teams. When not getting those freebies, teams you think of as being powerhouses are going to seem pretty mortal.

*If you like betting on first half and second half lines in Las Vegas, look for aggression and energy in the first half (Overs), but a tightening of the screws and running the clock in the second half (Unders). Some fourth quarters are moving along very quickly because the team with a lead just has to get a few first downs to erase much of the clock.

I'll touch on this theme and other developments during the course of the season. For now, be sure you're aware of what's going on. The game is changing before our very eyes. Keep those eyes open so you can take advantage!

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